Contemporary music is designed to fail when it is done poorly. So too, traditional hymn-singing is designed to fail when it is taught poorly, or worse, not at all. When reading the blogs and comments about the worship wars, very rarely is it ever pointed out that the next generation of Christians know less about music than the previous did at the same age. It’s easy to see why – schools have less money to use to pay for more subjects, music education isn’t a high priority and hasn’t been for quite some time. In my experience, only the talented students get any extra push to do well, everyone else is just passed through the course with little encouragement to keep it up or advice about how to improve. It also doesn’t help that there’s really not a lot of time to learn much of anything – when music class is fifteen minutes, Tuesday and Thursdays for three months out of the year to teach thirty children the basics – you can’t help but leave a lot of them behind especially when social dynamics are an obstacle. I took such a class but don’t even remember it, so it’s not enough to have a class once and never again.
Not only do schools not teach music sufficiently, the churches don’t bother teaching music either. A whole generation that was never taught to sing are now parents who don’t sing, can’t teach singing, aren’t comfortable with singing, and aren’t confident with singing particularly in public. The tradition of learning singing is broken, so too, the tradition of singing hymns is broken. Sure, some outstanding singers will preserve it, but by and large average singers with average voices who on average aren’t singing (like me) aren’t going to sing them.
One comment many seem to make is that familiarity is the problem. Contemporary music constantly switches out songs so that there are more songs that fewer people know, as opposed to the hymns which are fewer songs that more people know. The theory only holds so much as people know how to sing. If one doesn’t know how to read music, how to follow along a hymn, then having a hymnal of 50 songs as opposed to 650 doesn’t make the slightest difference. They have to rely on picking it up by ear, which is exactly how they would learn the contemporary music anyway. Songs usually rotate out, it actually surprised us that the contemporary church sang ‘How He Loves’ as that song was new when we last sang it. The other songs we didn’t know because we had been out of the game, but there’s a certain point where new songs become old and they won’t be sung frequently if at all like those random hymns that nobody has ever sung as far back as you can remember. Singing the rotation of hymns is a lot like singing the rotation of contemporary music. So familiarity with the music isn’t the problem – familiarity with singing is.
Tradition depends upon traditions being shared and passed down in order to thrive. One cannot expect a generation who was not taught a tradition to carry it out just because the generations before them did. They’re not connected to it. There is no meaning to it. They have no history of it. They have no memory of it. In my church, the youth choir is allowed to sing contemporary music. They will be expected to quit singing them altogether when they graduate and sing hymns amazingly after years and years of not singing hymns at all. That’s like being expected to create a gourmet meal your first time in the kitchen. It’s like being expected to dance perfectly your first time out on the floor. It’s like being expected to read aloud in a foreign language you don’t know to a room of people who do know that language far better than you do.
It’s almost as if it is designed to fail, especially when all along it has failed you every step of the way. This has created a gap that has has widened into a chasm. The gap between elders and youth. The gap between traditional and contemporary. The gap between singers and non-singers. The gap between the leaders and the rest of the congregation. If a house divided cannot stand, then certainly a church divided will not last either. The good news is, neither will the worship wars endure. Eventually it’s stoutest proponents will lose their numbers to age and their influence to the new majority – a generation of youth who grew up singing contemporary music and their elders who prefer contemporary over hymns anyway. Traditionally, tradition doesn’t withstand the change of time when nobody carries it on. That’s why we don’t sing the original hymns sung by the churches mentioned in Acts or Revelation. Their tradition has long since faded, as ours will, both traditional and contemporary in it’s time.